Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 6 December 2020

'National histories are not national facts': British Art Show 2021 will explore thorny past

Former UAE Venice Biennale pavilion curator Hammad Nasar is at the helm of the touring exhibition, which will begin in March

Hammad Nasar was curator of the art UAE pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2017. National Pavilion UAE
Hammad Nasar was curator of the art UAE pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2017. National Pavilion UAE

Reparative history and new futures are two of the topics addressed by the curators of the next British Art Show, a touring exhibition that offers a snapshot of art-making in the UK.

The curators for the show, which is held every five years, are Irene Aristizabal, a curator at the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead, England, and Hammad Nasar, steward of the UAE’s Venice Biennale art pavilion in 2017.

The touring exhibition has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. It was meant to open next month in Manchester, but was postponed to open in its next venue, in Wolverhampton, in March next year.

Aristizabal and Nasar say the exhibition’s themes were developed before the pandemic – and before the UK art world’s current reckoning with racial histories – but so far, their plans for the show seem highly attuned to the present moment.

“The Covid crisis has highlighted the crucial role played in society by low-paid and exploited workers – carers, health workers, crop pickers, delivery drivers and supermarket workers, among others,” Aristizabal and Nasar tell The National. "In many of the world’s richest societies, these workers are from communities that have also borne the brunt of sustained racial injustice.

“Many artists share an interest in how such trauma is carried in the body, transmitted from one person to another, and often from one generation to another. They investigate the possibilities for such trauma to be shared and healed through multiple modes of practice [sound, movement and touch] that privilege experience over spectacle. The body thus becomes a central site, for acknowledgement, healing and repair.”

British artist Elaine Mitchener’s performance Sweet Tooth (2017), for example, addresses Britain’s role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The theatre piece mixes dance, music and archival material to show how the country's sugar industry participated in the trafficking of enslaved African men, women and children.

About a third of the 40 artists involved were born outside the UK, a testament to how Britain, even in the throes of the long Brexit process, remained a centre for art-making. And several participants are alumni of recent Sharjah Biennials, including Armenian-Syrian artist Hrair Sarkissian, Swiss artist Uriel Orlow, Colombian-Briton Oscar Murillo, and the duo Cooking Sections, whose work was also featured at the last Sharjah Architecture Triennial.

The ninth British Art Show will try to highlight artistic work as influential, not only in the gallery or the museum space, but in the world at large.

National histories are not national facts. They are shared cultural narratives produced over hundreds of years

Irene Aristizabal and Hammad Nasar

“National histories are not national facts,” the show’s curators say. “They are shared cultural narratives produced over hundreds of years. Shifting them requires sustained and accumulative cultural effort that places healing at its core. Many artists in BAS9 work as part of, and in conversation with, a larger collective effort across the cultural, educational and activist spheres, and consider their practice as possible sites where care and healing can be practised, and difficult histories worked through.”

The pair will also tweak the established format of the British Art Show, which is organised by Hayward Touring Shows and typically travels to four British cities. This year, the exhibition will change format from city to city, to respond to local contexts.

“This layered and malleable structure will result in a variation in the scale and shape of the exhibition, and will enable multiple voices, practices and strategies to exist in forms that do not flatten their differences; to reflect the fluid identities and complexities society is wrestling with,” the curators say.

The exhibition begins touring in March and will go to the Wolverhampton Art Gallery and University of Wolverhampton School of Art, the Aberdeen Art Gallery and Plymouth, finishing in Manchester in September 2022.

A scene from Elaine Mitchener's performance Sweet Tooth, 2020. Courtesy the artist Photo Brian Roberts
A scene from Elaine Mitchener's performance 'Sweet Tooth'. Brian Roberts

Updated: August 10, 2020 07:04 PM

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